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Billings, and Montana, go to the Little League World Series at last

Editor's note: This is “bonus” copy that accompanies my book-in-progress about the life of Billings' Dave McNally, who became a star pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles. He won 181 games for the Birds (second-most wins in team history), played in four World Series, won 20 games or more for four straight seasons, and then retired and returned to his hometown. All of Billings, plus Montana, mourned Dave's passing in December 2002 when, at age 60, he succumbed to cancer.

Dave McNally got his start in baseball in 1951 when, as an eight-year-old, he joined the Billings Little League program. It was one of the first, if not first, Little League programs in Montana.

The future Baltimore Orioles star progressed through Babe Ruth and then American Legion baseball. He came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time when Billings became one of the top baseball towns of its size (under 100,000 population) in the United States. Billings Legion Post 4, better known later as the Billings Royals, won fourteen straight state championships between 1954 and 1964. Eddie Bayne coached the Magic City team to four American Legion World Series appearances, in 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1962. McNally led the way in 1960, pitching eighteen wins without a loss to help earn Billings a trip to the Legion World Series in Hastings, Nebraska. The Royals won three games at the Little World Series and reached the championship game, where they lost to New Orleans, which had another future major league standout, Rusty Staub, on its roster.

Yet, one thing was missing from Billings' rich baseball history, which included several Pioneer League Championships won by the professional Mustangs. Billings never sent a team to the Little League World Series in its first six decades of existence … until 2011, nine years after McNally's death at age sixty.

The Big Sky Little League All Stars ended that drought in spectacular fashion eleven years ago. They became the first Montana team to earn a trip to South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, site of the storied Little League world Series since the late 1940s. To get there, Big Sky won the state championship and advanced to the Northwest Region Tournament in San Bernardino, California. They posted a 5-1 record in the tournament, culminating in a 7-1 victory over Bend South Little League of Bend, Oregon, in a championship game shown live on ESPN.

“I think all of our goals were to make it to San Bernardino,” winning pitcher Patrick Zimmer, an eighth-grader at Lewis and Clark Middle School in Billings, told the Billings Gazette on August 14, 2011.

“Once we started playing here, we thought we could actually win this,” he said.

It was off to Little League’s promised land for a team that along with Zimmer included Ben Askelson, Jet Campbell, Sean Jones, Conner Kieckbush, Pearce Kurth, Ian Leatherberry, Andy Maehl, Brock MacDonald, Cole McKenzie, Dawson Smith and Gabe Sulser. Gene Carlson coached Big Sky; his assistant coaches were Mark Kieckbush and Tom Zimmer.

When Billings’ Boys of Summer got to the World Series, they started playing in a way that captured the hearts of many Montanans—and a fair number of people from around the country.

Nothing epitomized the plucky play of the Billings boys better than their semifinal win over favored Huntington Beach, California, on August 24, 2011. The defense-dominated game stayed tied at 0-0 after six innings, the regulation length of Little League games, Then Askelson brought Big Sky partisans to their feet with a roar that could be heard almost from Montana. The left fielder took one strike before he powered the ball over the left field fence for a 1-0 walk off victory.

“I am just overwhelmed and happy for my son and all these boys,” said his mother, Rosanne Askelson. “We always have hope because we know Ben can hit, and in my heart of hearts, I knew he could do it. And he did it.“

I watched that game on TV with my late wife, Carolyn, not in Billings, but in a sports bar in Belgrade, Montana, where we lived then. The place was packed, and Askelson's homer prompted a blast of cheers that threatened to lift the roof off the place.

Billings' win kept the Big Sky kids undefeated and put them in the U.S. championship game on Saturday, August 27. It was a rubber match with Huntington. Beach, which defeated the Keystone All-Stars from Clinton County, Pennsylvania, in earlier loser-out play.

The Cinderella story ended that day when Big Sky lost to the California team, 11-2. Until that game, Big Sky was the only undefeated American team in the international event. Billings finished with a 20-2 season record.

Huntington Beach beat Japan to capture the 2011 title.

Someone who got special delight from that year's Little League series was veteran TV sports broadcaster Brent Musburger. He grew up in Billings, and his father, Cec Musburger, started the city's Little League program in 1951, and Brent and his brother, Todd, were among Billings’ early Little Leaguers. Brent started covering the Little League World Series in the 1980s and by 2011, he had become the “voice” of one of the most popular and beloved sports events in the U.S.

A week after the World Series, the Big Sky All-Stars were the toast of their town. Billings, on a sunny Saturday afternoon that started the Labor Day weekend. Team members rode in city fire engines that took them on North 27th Street to Dehler Park, where 4,500 people gathered to shower appreciation on the team.

Billings Mayor Tom Hamel proclaimed it Big Sky All-Stars Day. Montana governor Brian Schweitzer also spoke about the pressure felt by a 12-year-old player standing at the plate, instructed by his coach to bunt a runner from first base to second or to try for a home run.

“This is the loneliest place on the planet, you trust your coaches, you trust your team and when the pitch comes, you take your swing.

“It sounds like life, and on that basis, we have a wonderful group of players that will be successful not just in baseball, but in the game of life.”

Videos from that glorious time.

2011 Little League World Series championship game

Big Sky Little Leaguers beat Huntington Beach

Crowd at Montana State University-Billings' Petro Theater watching the first Billings-Huntington Beach game

Heroes parade in Billings

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Jamie Larson